Michael Mazur (1935-2009)
By John Yau
The first poetry reading I gave after graduating from Bard College in 1972 was because of Gail Mazur. Although she didn’t know my poetry or me, she graciously invited me to give a reading at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, Mass. It must have been in 1973 or ’74, as Gail founded the series in 1973 and ran it for many years. I remember being very anxious about making the most of this opportunity.
Gail had paired me with another young poet, David Cloutier, who various people told me had published poems in national magazines and even had a chapbook out, or was about to have one out. He was Edwin Honig’s best student. Some of the poems that David read were based on what he said were Eskimo or shaman songs. For not altogether the right reason, before I read my poems, I said that while I looked like an Eskimo, I wasn’t going to read any Eskimo poems.
I still remember Honig lecturing me after the reading about what an insensitive jerk I was, and that it was clear to him that I wasn’t going anywhere, and then storming off. Gail, however, never criticized me. She never acted as if I behaved badly, which no doubt I did. It was that generosity that I will always remember, because it helped me to find my own way into this world.
I don’t remember when I first met Michael, but I remember hearing about him, most likely from Bill Corbett. I moved to New York from Cambridge in 1975, and I don’t think that I met him before then, though I must have. And so I first got to know Michael through his work. This is as it should be.
I began looking at Michael’s work in the late 70s, going to his shows at Robert Miller, Barbara Mathes, Joe Fawbush, and finally Mary Ryan. But it wasn’t until I started teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in the summer of 2001 that I got to know him. He would have lunch with me and Eve at least once during the summer at Clem and Ursie’s, which is no longer there, and I would also go to his studio. The first time I went, he pointed out a large wood sculpture by Paul Bowen that was on the outside wall of his studio, and told me a little about him. Later, Eve and I went to Paul’s studio, and we bought a small drawing. This was who Michael was—generous and caring. In his studio, we would talk about his work, about art, about where he grew up, the artists he knew and those he studied with. I particularly remember Michael talking enthusiastically about particular aspects of the work of Edwin Dickinson and Ralph Blakelock while we were standing in his dining room in Cambridge, surrounded by art.
Michael loved art and artists—and that passion and enthusiasm spread throughout every conversation that we ever had. He looked at lots of art, and wasn’t afraid of it, and what others did. There are very few artists who can sit inside themselves and not feel threatened or envious. Among the artists he invited up to Provincetown to make monotypes to help the Fine Arts Work Center raise money were Yvonne Jacquette and Sylvia Plimack-Mangold. In a subsequent project, which was a spin-off of what he started, Mary Heilmann and Rudy Burckhardt did lithographs. Michael and I talked about what a terrific painter Rudy was, and how most people knew his photographs, but not his touching, highly detailed paintings.
I think for many people Michael is best known as a printmaker. And he certainly made great prints, a fact that became clear to me when I saw his From Nature, Prints and Drawings, 1958–2007 at the Mary Ryan Gallery in 2007. It was so full of showstoppers that when I left the gallery, I went straight home because I didn’t want to look at any more art that day. It is also an indisputable fact that he was instrumental in helping to revive the art of monotype, and that he was moved to do so after seeing a show of Degas’s monotypes at the Fogg Art Museum in the spring of 1968. However, I think to limit Michael’s achievement to printmaking is to not recognize his deeper accomplishment as an artist and as a painter.
The big thing about Michael Mazur as a painter is that he created many diverse bodies of work. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he never developed a signature style or subject. He was too curious and restless to settle for one thing. He could easily have developed a style—he had a beautiful way of handling paint—but I believe he felt that was the easy way, and he never wanted to take the obvious path. I wrote about his “Diary Paintings,” which are completely unlike the work that preceded it or came after. In that work, he did the most surprising and unlikely thing—he began using stencils and spray paint. He reinvented himself. I told him that he had become a graffiti tagger. The reasons for this change are not a mystery—his own serious health problems and 9/11—the sense that one’s world has been tipped upside down, and nothing will ever be the same again.
And yet, even as I say this, I think there is another way to look at Michael’s work, particularly around the subject of water—the paintings of a pond’s edge, of rain, of rain on a pond, the black rain (or is it dust?) that recurs in the “Diary Paintings.” I can’t help but think that these are paintings about dissolution, about the deluge, and the chaos that overtakes us all, and that Michael wasn’t going to turn away from what he knew he couldn’t escape.
Leonardo looked at chaos in his “deluge” drawings, Philip Guston looked at it in his late paintings of heads and detritus floating in water, and Jasper Johns is looking at it in his paintings of the bathtub and the “Catenaries.” In the “Diary Paintings” and the “Rain” paintings, Michael not only looks at dissolution but, in order to do so, he is willing to give up the masterful brushwork and the painterly marks, from blunt and direct to wispy and delicate, that he has at his disposal, as he did with his “Diary Paintings.” When it came to painting, he could make the difficult look effortless and casual, as in the “Rain” paintings, which are the last body of paintings he completed, and which I saw at the Mary Ryan Gallery, where the marks and brushwork return, more direct than ever before.
In these paintings, there is no place to stand. We are just above the water, and, like the rain, we are falling into it, and dissolving. The ripples we make may last, as they do in the paintings, or they may dissipate and vanish. We have no way of knowing how the world will remember us. The paintings don’t point to a far shore—they don’t offer security or comfort. They don’t promise to reveal the next image or place. We are out in the rain, and there is nothing to protect us. We are here, the paintings show us, and this is what we have—oil paint and water, a bad mix.
To face the possibility of adding up to nothing near the end of one’s life takes courage and honesty. It means that you know that painting can’t save you, that nothing can, and that you didn’t become a painter because you thought it would. This is what makes painters so necessary to our lives—the best ones keep looking long after most of us turn away. They see what we all know to be true, and they don’t back away from it or avert their eyes. I think that the act of seeing clearly is what frightens most people, why so many want to say that painting is obsolete, that it died. They want to believe that they know how the story will turn out. Michael Mazur knew this wasn’t true, and he kept painting and looking. That’s something that we should all aspire to.
Originally ran in The Brooklyn Rail.